Investing, adapting and listening have helped a small takeaway make a big splash in the coastal town of Ramsgate in Kent
Looking through faded photos of the building his parents owned – encompassing Newington Fish Bar on one corner and a hairdressers on the other – with his Ford Capri parked neatly outside, Nigel Derrett is proud of the changes he’s made to the chippy in Ramsgate, Kent, since taking it over in 1980.
Back then, he and his brother Ken had both quit their jobs as chefs, swapping their long, unsociable hours for a job share that saw Nigel do the lunchtime shifts and Ken the evening, leaving plenty of time for both to be with their young families.
“At the time, a lot of people saw it as a step backwards and said why do you want to leave your jobs as chefs to work in a greasy chippy,” says Nigel. “But we always knew we wanted to be something better. We never considered it a quick job or anything like that, it was always going to be a long-term investment.
“Everything we did, any profit we made was ploughed back into the business – new equipment, changes to the shop – we were continually improving all the time, making things better, improving our fish and chips, the image, everything.”
The first chip shop in Kent to achieve the 5-star Quality Award from Seafish – now run by the NFFF – Newington Fish Bar has gone on to achieve MSC certification – buying only sustainably sourced frozen at sea cod and haddock – it chips and peels its own potatoes which are sourced from a farm just 10 miles away, and in 2019 introduced environmentally friendly packaging when it moved to bio-boxes and paper bags.
And over the past few years, the trophy cabinet has had a boost with the chippy making the Top 20 in the National Fish & Chip Awards 2018 and the Fry Top 50 Takeaways in 2021.
“We’ve changed the concept of the little corner, greasy chippy into what we consider is a professionally run catering establishment,” remarks Nigel, who is supported by a team of 12 staff, his brother now retired.
With approximately 70% of the shop’s sales fish and chips, Newington has been hit hard by the price of fish skyrocketing since the beginning of the year. Like all chippies, menu prices have had to increase, with cod and chips shooting up from £6 at the beginning of the year to £9.10 currently.
“My prices have gone up about five times this year,” says Nigel. “I was getting embarrassed at how many times I was putting them up. Initially, I thought, I can’t go this high, but I had to because otherwise we were going to go under.”
Nigel has proactively added hake as an alternative to cod and haddock at half the price but it’s made very little difference, adding: “We’ve promoted and pushed that quite a bit this year, I’ve even said to customers if you don’t like it you can have your money back, but they still come back to cod or haddock.”
Even with implementing price increases, it’s not enough to cover all the rises the business is facing and so profit margins have taken a hit, running around 10-15% less than at the beginning of the year.
“It’s hard trying to make ends meet,” says Nigel. “I’m trying to cut back where I can but it’s difficult, especially as my staff need higher wages now. I want to put the wages up for my manageresses to show them I appreciate them; my staff are the essence of the shop.”
Despite the pressures, Nigel retains a positive outlook, especially when communicating with his customers, which he does more and more these days by posting videos on Facebook.
“I’ve created a field to fork one, an ocean to plate one, and the most recent has been on all the staff and how we run the shop. I know they’re a bit cringe-worthy but I’ve had quite a few customers come in and say they like them because they are real.”
Located on the main road which runs between Ramsgate and the next seaside town of Margate, Newington benefits from a lot of through traffic, although it’s the housing estates to the front, back and sides that generate the main bread and butter. It’s a community that the fish bar is keen to support with regular fundraising events, fun days outside the shop, supplying vouchers for raffle prizes and free meals for children during school holidays.
Nigel adds: “In the spring half term this year, things were getting hard for people so we decided to offer free meals to children again. A local charity that supports families on low incomes asked if they could put a table in the shop with free fruit for the children so, of course, we said yes. We did nearly 1,200 meals that week and the feedback from the community was so positive and far outweighed the cost of giving the food away.”
Taking a positive attitude to the business, Nigel is always keen to come up with new ideas and move with the times. While a spell offering gluten free fish and chips didn’t work out, grilled fish and salads have, with sales growing all the time. As have their homemade burgers since Nigel changed the way they are marketed, creating a new section called ‘from the griddle’ and letting customers build their own burgers.
Nigel has also got leaner with opening hours. Instead of operating a split shift and closing at 10pm six days a week, now it’s straight through from 11am to 9pm.
“That last hour was always a bit slow,” admits Nigel. “I gain more now by closing up that hour early and being open for those two hours in the afternoon. The idea of having a shop that opens for lunch then closes and opens for dinner is old-fashioned, people want you to be open when they want you open. Plus these hours work much better for us.”
With the facilities to put another range in a room out the back and operate a separate business running deliveries, there’s plenty of scope for Nigel to grow the business should he want to expand in the future.
Being in the industry for over 40 years, Nigel has picked up a host of useful advice and says if there is one thing he can pass on it’s to stay engaged – get involved in competitions and awards, listen to others in the trade, follow the Facebook pages for the industry and read articles.
“I remember reading an article by Kelly Barnes of Krispies years ago talking about how she took on an older chap to do her chips. I was in the same situation, I had some youngsters do it who then moved on to other jobs. I had a chap apply who initially I thought was a bit old, but I remembered what Kelly had said and I gave him the job, I haven’t looked back since.”